Visitors to Arthur Ou’s second New York solo exhibition may have been surprised to encounter a room lined with paintings. Known primarily as a photographer (and currently the director of the photography department at Parsons New School for Design), Ou has previously extended his explorations of the photographic process into sculpture and installation. Still, the lush gray canvases on view at Brennan & Griffin represent a departure for the artist.
While they are compelling abstract paintings in their own right, the canvases also contain material references to photography that reveal connections to Ou’s broader body of work. The paintings are hung in diptychs, and each canvas is stretched over a frame with a distinctive notch at the top right corner, mimicking the notch codes used to indicate the orientation of film strips. The silvery surfaces, which oscillate in tone and reflectivity as one moves around the room or the natural light changes throughout the day, owe their responsive properties to silver halide, an emulsion used in analog photography. Ou embellished the spare surfaces by mixing in dirt to create texture and applying airbrushed acrylic in hot pink and yellow. The resulting fields of diffuse, just-noticeable color complement the ethereal quality of the silver halide.
At the center of the gallery, Ou constructed a study table of sorts that allowed viewers to peruse a ring binder containing nearly 100 of his contact prints from the last year. The binder’s double-sided sleeves juxtaposed pairs of photographic images, a diptych structure that parallels the paintings’ installation. Some of the images echo formal aspects of the paintings. In one series of multiple exposure prints (a technique Ou has used extensively), rock faces and plywood construction dividers serve as ambiguous textural grounds upon which ghostly images of a wire sculpture are layered. Other photographs, of seascapes and snowy vistas of the Wittgenstein House in Vienna, share the atmospheric quality of the abstract paintings.
The table itself, designed by Ou, was ringed by hexagonal cardboard chairs, replicas of a mid-20th-century Japanese design. According to the gallery, each was painted in homage to a specific artist, with color combinations that invoke, at least for Ou, the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Mary Heilmann and Blinky Palermo. While some artists have called attention to the mechanical process of photography and experimented with materials in the darkroom, Ou tends to embed photography within a larger discourse of image-making that reaches across mediums. Textural and tonal connections reverberate between the black-and-white contact prints and the velvety silver paintings. Likewise, by invoking other artists’ uses of color, Ou’s custom seating subtly grounds the exhibition within a specific history of art. In a 2006 interview in North Drive Press, Ou suggested that his work attempts to confront photography by forestalling the completion of the photographic moment. With this show he delivered on that promise by staging an open-ended exchange between painted surfaces and spectral images.